One enters the exhibits of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum on the fourth floor. A brief film viewed in the elevator sets the stage for the utter destruction to come – the unfathomable devastation that necessitates the presence of this museum to record, document, and tell the story of the Holocaust so we can fathom it. So that we never forget. So that it never happens again.
One enters the fourth floor full of questions, but the biggest of all is this: How on earth did this ever happen?
The fourth floor offers the first hints, the first suggestions. The conditions: A polarized society… economic advancement that left many behind… cultural progress that left many disenfranchised. A charismatic leader: Angry… scapegoating… reliant on propaganda. A sharp turn in government: Banishment of the opposition… curtailment of the press… institutionalization of discrimination and hate.
Is this where we are today? No. Is the “alt-right” (in BIG quotation marks) the Nazi Party? Is Steve Bannon Josef Goebbels? Is Donald Trump a fascist? No.
But they’re way too close for comfort.
There’s been much talk of building walls – both during the campaign and after the election. We would do well to remember the Jewish tradition of building fences.
When it’s important to uphold a prohibition – to make sure we don’t get close to accidentally transgressing a command of the Torah – we’ve built halakhic (legal) fences. It’s how the biblical dietary commandment “don’t boil a kid in its mother’s milk” leads to not mixing milk and meat, separate dishes, a waiting period between eating the two – even refraining from eating chicken, which doesn’t produce milk, with cheese. Because when something is important, we must make sure to protect it.
What can be more important than safeguarding our civil liberties? What can be more essential than ensuring “Never Again”?
Why am I so concerned, so outspoken, willing to risk erring on the side of alarm? Because we’re not on the fourth floor – not yet. And thank God. Because once you begin on the museum’s fourth floor, the only way to exit is to continue through to the devastating end.